After suffering through one of the most dismal waterfowl seasons of my career, the end was in sight. January was nearly over, yet there remained one last hurrah; the last weekend of the late Kansas duck segment. One last chance for redemption…
While I sat at home contemplating whether and where to hunt, I received a call from J. Paul Jackson, host of Drake Waterfowl’s Migration Nation TV show. I had the fortune of meeting the amiable host previously, while he and the crew were hunting in Missouri.
It seemed that J. Paul was in a bind. He was en route to Colorado for a hunt and it seemed he needed a Migration Nation member to accompany the Drake TV crew for a hunt in Kansas. Without hesitation I accepted his offer to join the team for the weekend trip.
As a hard core waterfowler, I keep my gear ready to roll on a moments notice. My Drake waders, bibs and 1/4 zip jacket are always in the truck, and I keep licenses current in several states. Although I now reside in Missouri, I am a Kansan and anytime the opportunity presents itself to return there for a hunt it’s quickly set into play. I had already agreed to the journey when J. Paul gave me some news that caused my heart to skip a beat. The Migration Nation crew was going to southeast Kansas and the home of Carter’s Big Island Duck Club!
Now I had hunted nearly every nook and cranny of the Jayhawk state but I had not yet had savored the “greenheads” of the Neosho River bottoms. Of course I had heard and seen footage of hunts at Roy Carter’s place but never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would have the opportunity to hunt at a world class facility such as that. Luckily I have an understanding wife and daughter, who I hastily informed about the trip as I cased my shotgun and prepped my gear for the next day’s journey.
Once on the road with my retriever, Vito, it was a quick, enjoyable road trip to St. Paul, Kansas. Time passes swiftly with the anticipation of a great hunt and I am sure Vito was as restless as me. Just a few hours later we crossed the ancient one lane bridge that passes over the Neosho River and drops into “Carter Country”. When I exited the truck I immediately ran into David Weldon, the producer and lead videographer for the show. David introduced me to Roy Carter, the owner and proprietor of Carter’s Big Island.
Roy is one of those rare individuals that upon meeting, it seems that you met a lifelong friend. Although we had never met previously I immediately felt at home in Roy’s presence. Just beyond Roy stood a giant among duck callers, Trey Crawford. Three World Championship titles belong to this fella who is now retired from competition and guides at Carter’s operation. It was safe to say that my novice calling would not be needed on this trip!
Not only was I given the rare chance to hunt at the “Big Island” but I would be able to hear a mallard maestro perform his symphony to an audience of nearby ducks. In fact, as we shook hands, dozens of “greenheads” dropped into a little pothole just a few hundred yards from where we stood. There isn’t any better welcome committee than that!
As if things couldn’t get any better, Roy announced that we should all accompany him to the restaurant he owns in town. The Lodge, in St. Paul, is home to hundreds of items representing the history of Carter’s family and the region. Dozens of old photographs of hunters with straps full of “green”, trophy class Whitetail bucks, several different species of ducks, and a turkey or two adorn the wooden walls of The Lodge steakhouse. Upon entry Roy, excuses himself and makes sure all the existing patrons are content and enjoying themselves and their meals.
Once again he joins our group and points out a few of the bucks, explaining who shot it, what the situation was and other interesting tidbits of information from the hunt. I spied a full size tree stump complete with a wood duck peering out from the hollow nook and another below that at the base. A full size long bearded turkey stands in a corner ready to greet any and all guests.
Outdoorsmen and women of all ages will relish the sights inside the Lodge yet the food I tasted rivaled any steaks in Kansas City. As I savored the rib eye, Roy and Trey discussed the plans for the next morning’s hunt. After an cold brew, I was ready to head to camp to ensure I might be able to get some rest for the hunt.
At the alarms first ring I popped from my bed ready to roll. Quickly the smell of coffee invited all down to the kitchen and morning rituals began. Roy graciously allowed me to bring along my young dog so I went to prep Vito and gather my gear. Trey and Roy warmed up the utility vehicles or “scooters” as they call them, piling them high with decoys, blind bags, tripods, and gun cases. Once everyone was aboard our entourage headed toward the flooded grain field just beyond Roy’s farm house.
Skim ice had encroached upon the little impoundment but it was no match for the “scooter”. In quick order our crew had the decoys set, hunting locations issued and filming had begun just as the first amber rays of sunlight etched the sky. As Roy and Trey gave introductory statements into the cameras, ducks dutifully dropped in behind their shoulders.
The plan was to exclusively harvest only drakes on this hunt. Of course Roy admitted that any brown mallard wearing jewelry (i.e. a band) would be fair game as well! I readied my shotgun with three round of my favorite Fiocchi ammo and checked the safety. Glancing down I noticed that Vito was laying on his earthen nest but quivering with anxiety. A few calming words and we were both set to hunt.
In short order the ducks returned. Singles and pairs graced our presence, often falling from such heights that they might require oxygen. Trey blew his call at seemingly empty skies, which seconds later revealed a greenhead or two. Routinely ducks passed straining for a glimpse of anything out of the ordinary. Trey’s feed chuckle would greet them and frequently entice them closer.
Steadily the sun rose and likewise did our bird count. Typically arriving in singles and mating pairs, these late season birds required some finesse and careful handling. Trey’s years of experience paid off in spades as more times than nought, he and Roy were able to coax these educated ducks within shotgun range.
With only a thin tree line to conceal five hunters and two cameramen, camo and lack of movement was of the utmost importance. Our camo Drake pullovers and jackets keep the chill away and the face paint that Carter insisted upon was critical in hiding any obvious reflective skin. We kept head and hand movement to a minimum and had constructed great “hides” for the cameramen, giving them optimal vision yet limited visibility from the front and above.
In a gentleman like manner, our group took turns shooting at greenheads. Once a mallard appeared in the hole, Roy would call out a shooter and give them the stage. Fortunately for me, my aim was relatively true and over the course of the day I filled my limit as did everyone else. What’s more I was able to handle my somewhat raw talented retriever during the hunt. Vito did a fair job for such an inexperienced dog. For the most part he kept calm and quiet and didn’t break or spook any ducks which is all I could ask for. Watching him track the incoming ducks was very entertaining as he kept his eyes focused on the skies as much or more so than any of the hunters. Rarely did a duck arrive that he didn’t observe!
Eventually we culminated our limit, and packed up the gear. With the arrival of the “scooters” we stowed the multiple items and began to climb aboard for the quick cruise to the house. As we pulled away I threw out a quick thanks to God for such a magnificent hunt. Late season or not, we never lost a cripple nor did we have anything but perfect conditions for hunting and hopefully it was all captured on film for posterity!
That night, after slices of pizza were handed around, it was determined that in the morning, on the last day of the Kansas season, we would hit the timber. As Roy mentioned timber hunt, a blissful feeling came over me. I had only hunted timber once previously and it is a sight to behold when things come together and ducks work properly. It was apparent that Roy and Trey felt that same giddiness as the mood definitely got joyful and light.
Once more the next morning found us filling our mugs with coffee, and determining what gear was needed. Standing is waist deep cold water can be cruel and unmerciful. Thus I was thankful for my Drake LST waders since I (and the entire crew) remained warm and dry throughout the hunt. Good gear can be critical on any hunt, yet it is paramount late in the year when temps get low and birds get wise.
Once we exited the scooters, Roy explained that we would be positioning a couple dozens decoys behind us on a high and dry region, while here and there in front of us would rest another dozen or so dekes. As before, Carter and Crawford strung out a “jerk cord” which employed three or four decoys tied to a string. As approaching ducks became visible, either Trey or Roy would give the contraption a hand and create visible movement on the water that is prominent especially to overhead ducks.
Throughout the course of the day, the jerkcord became very significant as many of the ducks attempted to land in it’s wake. Still, it would be difficult to judge which was more influential, the jerk cord or the quick, loud volume of a three time World Champion’s duck call! Either way, I felt fortunate as did the other hunters to be in this situation.
Gradually, strands of red sunlight etched through the branches, giving way to legal shooting hours. A trio of Fiocchi’s best shells found their way into my twelve gauge then I hung it on a tree limb and gathered my camera for a few shots. As if on cue, a squadron of mallards blazed through our spread at what seemed like Mach 1. Unique and exhilarating, every duck hunter knows that distinctive sound of air rushing off a duck’s wing and body and I doubt anyone ever tires of hearing it.
In the next few hours we heard ducks buzz in, quietly settle in through the canopy, and likewise had them circle numerous times prior to deciding to join their brethren. I couldn’t decide which method of approach I preferred the mallards to take…
Jake, a young hunter in the group started us off, literally with a bang. His shotgun struck green several times allowing us to “get on the board” and then he shared the wealth with his father and the rest of our group.
Although not as steady a flight day as the day prior, we still enjoyed a prominent display of airborne acrobatic skill from the ducks as they lit in among the trees. Likewise, calling is never more important than when hunting timber. I believe sheer volume can play a role in the trees and Trey was like a veteran auctioneer continually addressing the crowd. Between the jerkcord and call he was able to direct the ducks into the proper zone allowing us ample time for shots.
Four hours later, our group had several heavy stringers of ducks including a prestine Pintail. Just short of a limit for the entire party, it was none the less, one of those hunts when quality makes up for quanity. As I mentioned previously, there is just something special about hunting in flooded timber and its a rarity in Kansas!
As we collected decoys, stowed shotguns and snapped photos, it was only fitting that small groups of mallards drifted into sight. Much like a waterfowl print, it was the perfect end to a perfect trip. As I shook hands with Trey and Roy and thanked them for the ideal hunt, I couldn’t help but think of how better to end the season than at Carter’s Big Island and a strap full of mallards!